Natalie Portman in 'The Professional': PopWatch Rewind takes aim at the 'Black Swan' star's debut

Natalie Portman is everywhere right now. Just a week after winning a Golden Globe for her soul-baring, body-punishing, Mila Kunis-kissing performance in Black Swan, Portman is headlining the change-of-pace romantic comedy No Strings Attached. That’s just one of the five movies she’ll appear in this year. Portman’s also newly engaged and pregnant with her first child. What better time to look back at where it all began? Portman’s first movie was The Professional, in which an emotionally detached hitman meets a chain-smoking orphan who becomes his companion, his student, and his unrequited love. It’s a plotline that could seem icky — Lolita with a sniper rifle — but great performances by Jean Reno and Portman make The Professional (also known by its international title, Leon) into a uniquely tenderhearted thriller.

Keith Staskiewicz: Before he started producing all those English-language, Euro-financed, An American in Paris Shoots People movies, Luc Besson was quite the rising star. La Femme Nikita would spawn two TV shows and a remake, but it was The Professional that brought him into the mainstream. It’s a fascinating movie. It exists in this Bizarro-New York that doesn’t ever feel like real New York. Instead, it’s some strange fairy tale idealization of the city as it existed in the ’70s or ’80s.

Darren Franich: It reminded me a little bit of the snow-globe Manhattan of The Royal Tenenbaums, right down to Besson’s preference for Andersonian wide-angle lenses. I love how, in The Professional‘s New York, no one can ever hear anything through the walls of an apartment building. A bomb can go off in the apartment next door, and nobody notices.

KS: I have a soft spot in my heart for certain movies by foreign directors that tend to depict the U.S. as an idealized version of the country that’s been transmitted across the Atlantic and filtered through movies and TV.  Like Paris, Texas or Stroszek or My Blueberry Nights, which also stars Portman. You can say these movies are set in “America,” but it feels weird to say that they’re set in “the United States,” because that’s too concrete of a place.

Oh, those precocious American teenagers and their Charlie Chaplin impressions.

DF: The Professional reads on paper like an ultraviolent caper — a cute kid gets shot, an entire SWAT team gets decimated, and 13-year-old points a loaded gun at her own head. It almost sounds like a Jason Statham movie, except that the Portman role would be an 18-year-old math prodigy/Playmate. But for much of the running time, the movie feels light and quirky.

KS: For a hitman movie, it’s got a pretty melancholy feel. You could argue that Besson gets a little over-graphic when he kills Portman’s family for a film not aiming for realism. Leon is a character defined completely by his loss. Even the “getting ready to kick ass” montage is set to a slow, sad Bjork song instead of “Hell’s Bells” or something like that.

Why yes, we'd LOVE anchovies!

DF: On the same point, one thing I love about The Professional is that Leon never looks “cool” in any sort of traditional action-movie sense. He has those big sunglasses. He wears suspenders. He’s unshaven, and it’s hobo-stubble, not Crockett-stubble. Really, you have to just give props to Jean Reno: The mere fact that he makes us feel like Leon isn’t a pedophile is practically Oscar-worthy.

KS: There are some uncomfortable moments in the movie, but it never steps over the line. I think that played by two other actors, and played as written, it might be something else entirely, but Portman and Reno make it work. Leon isn’t just a hitman-with-a-heart-of-gold; he’s a hitman with the mind of a child. Natalie Portman is more sexual than she would be in anything until Closer. The fact that Reno clearly has a strong French accent when he’s supposed to be Italian isn’t distracting. It just adds to the no-place, no-time atmosphere.  Plus, I love Danny Aiello, who never leaves his restaurant. Really, he never even leaves his table. He’s like what would happen if Sal from Do the Right Thing ran a criminal empire on the side.

DF: It’s an American movie with a Frenchman playing an Italian hitman, an English actor playing an American DEA agent, and an Israeli actress playing a hardscrabble New York kid. Globalism, Wow!

So young, so innocent. If only we could warn her about 'The Phantom Menace.'

KS: Just like in V for Vendetta, she falls in love with a violent mystery man. Just like in Closer, The Other Boleyn Girl, and Hotel Chevalier, she’s a sexually precocious romantic aggressor.

DF: And sometimes she’s just annoyingly precocious, just like in Garden State and Star Wars: Episode 1.

KS: There’s a great scene that was deleted from the original theatrical release where Portman drinks some champagne and laughs for about two minutes. Wonderfully, it sounds exactly like her Golden Globes laugh.

"Honey, I think you've had a little too much Cherry Coke."

DF: What is it about hitmen that make them such frequent subjects of movies?

KS: They kill people, so they already have the onscreen cool factor. And everybody likes a good anti-hero. Maybe it’s the same thing that makes Top Chef so popular; people just like seeing people at the top of their craft doing what they do best in interesting and creative ways. Except here, instead of lobster with cream sauce, it’s mobsters with a sniper bullet. That’s probably why the hitmen in movies are always the very best at what they do, instead of just some dude with leftover piano wire.

DF: Weirdly, Luc Besson has been responsible for quite a few of those “best at what they do” hitman movies. He produced and/or wrote The Transporter series, Hitman, From Paris With Love, and Taken. In a funny way, Taken almost feels like the complete inverse of The Professional: Instead of a hitman trying desperately not to deflower a virginal young girl in a decidedly French-feeling New York, you’ve got a hitman trying desperately to prevent anyone else from deflowering a virginal young girl in a decidedly American-feeling Paris.

A professional at work.

KS: Before we finish, we have to talk about Gary Oldman, who plays the film’s villain.

DF: Oldman is incredible. Just the faces he makes in this film are beyond insane — see pictures below. He takes lines that could’ve come out of a lame French Connection rip-off and makes them sound like a drug-induced double hallucination of William Shatner and late-period Al Pacino. “I haven’t got time for this Mickey Mouse bulls—” becomes “I haven’t got TIIIIIIIMMMEEE! For this MICKEY MOUSE! BULL! S—!” (See here.)

KS: He’s basically Cookie Monster with the scenery: He chews it up and spits it out in a million pieces.

DF: Keith, that comparison is kind of silly and kind of poetic. I’m sure Luc Besson would approve. In conclusion, allow me to present: The Three Best Faces Gary Oldman Makes in The Professional. (Painfully trimmed down from a list of several thousand.)

Agony

Ecstasy

Spin it, DJ!

Next Week: In The Rite, Anthony Hopkins plays an elder priest schooling an apprentice in the fine art of exorcism. We’ll be returning to the film that started the whole craze for Catholic horror, opening the cinematic Hellmouth to four decades of troubled priests and terrible virgin-snatching demons: William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Make sure to bring your pea soup! And also some holy water — you gotta have holy water with The Exorcist.


Comments (36 total) Add your comment
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  • Di

    Gary Oldman should’ve won an Oscar for this movie. The fact that he hasn’t for anything since is beyond reprehensible.

    • Prunella Von Schleidlhaagen

      YES.

    • tracy bluth

      YES! Or at least been nominated.
      For the longest time no one could even mention the word “professional” without me bursting out into “EVVVVVEEEERRRRRYYYYOOONNNNEEEE!!!!!”

    • bEAU

      All three of them should have won an Oscar!

      • Em

        Agree!

    • johnnmalone

      Absolutely correct.

  • Jeannette

    funny I never really sensed a sexual element between Natalie and jean but the bathroom scene with her and Gary had me inappropriately wanting him to kiss her!

    • John

      Then you should see the uncut, international version called Leon: The Professional. The dialog is explicitly lolita type stuff.

  • Amber

    Leon is my favorite movie. The Director’s cut especially deepens the relationship between Leon and Matilda. I also agree re: Oldman should have won an Oscar. I hadn’t seen Portman be so free with herself until Black Swan. It was wonderful to see.

  • Christina

    You mean you don’t anymore? I still can’t hold it back!

    • Christina

      I meant for that to be a reply to tracy. Thanks, Internet.

  • Beauty

    LOVE this movie! It was such an instant classic. Portman was immediately a star in my eyes after this. Anyone who hasn’t seen it needs to see it yesterday!

    • Annie

      I agree! After I saw this film, I knew Natalie would grow up to be a great beauty and be a star.

      • bEAU

        Me too. I told my wife when watching it, “watch out for her, she’s gonna be very very good”.

      • johnnmalone

        That’s what I thought, too. You know movies and acting.

  • Japanese HIROSHI

    1) (Franich said) “. . . no one can ever hear anything through the walls of an apartment building. A bomb can go off in the apartment next door, and nobody notices.”. . . Perhaps they feared for their own lives. Maybe it could be assumed (not entirely realistically, though) that, as Gary Oldman’s character was the “DEA” agent, he pulled some strings (out of the scenes) so that neighbors ended up thinking it was just another bad day on the job. Etc. The bottom line is, IMO, if we tend to be over-prescriptive, we won’t be happy watching films and movies.

  • Japanese HIROSHI

    (Cont.) 2) (Franich, again, said) “It’s an American movie with a Frenchman playing an Italian hitman, an English actor playing an American DEA agent, and an Israeli actress playing a hardscrabble New York kid. Globalism, Wow!”. . .
    . . . Though born in France, Reno is Spanish by race (. . . it’s relevant. . . since you strategically make it clear that Israeli [by race, I presume], be she [Portman] despite that her character spoke perfect American English) given the benefits of her then-dual nationality(?). I mean, with your logics, virtually all American movies are a collective epitome of Globalism, as well, don’t you think? : )
    3) The champagne drinking scene only proves that Portman’s character is American. Her American child character was carefree and laughing too loud in public. She didn’t show both of her hands on table while dining. Not to mention the fork on her right (?) side, too. Etc. : )
    4) While I find it entertaining, the action stunts, IMO, had been done before (watch HK Chinese movies and films in 70s and 80s, if you please.). : )
    5) The main theme performed by Sting (at the end credit) is noteworthy as well.

    • Jen

      Actually, Portman was born in Jerusalem. If you’re going to try so hard, you might take the 0.02 seconds it requires to use “the Google” to check your speculation with actual facts.

      • Joe

        learn how to read before you criticize. Reno’s origin is applicable because Portman’s is in the writer’s strange, specious argumentation.

  • Miss Talk

    I love this movie. Luc Besson a genius.

  • billyc

    Hiroshi – nobody likes a smarty pants.

  • Foxer

    Call me naive, but I never saw the sexual connection. I thought of it like an idealised love, like the stories about a knight who fights in the name of a lady he never touches… but also never intends to touch, kind of thing.

    • JennyK

      I don’t think it’s naive – I think this movie acts a bit as a Rorschach test for viewers who wanted to see Matilda as a sexual object. Unlike Mr. Franich above, I don’t think it even occurred to Leon to see her in a sexual light – that’s why he looked so confused and shocked when she played Madonna crooning “Like a Virgin” during the aforementioned dress-up scene. Obviously they danced along that line the whole time, but I always saw their relationship as an uncategorizable kind of love that developed. It’s interesting to conjecture what might have happened if things hadn’t ended as they had, but that makes it all the more poignant.

  • Big Dog

    One of my favorites and Natalie Portman’s sequence where she’s trying on clothes, being Charlie Chaplin is fantastic! It clearly showed then, that she had great acting chops.

  • Jon

    The disturbing thing is that now as an adult, all these years later, Natalie Portman appears to still weigh the same.

  • pb

    I agree with Foxer. I never, ever saw it as sexual love – it defied the simple quality of sexuality, which made it interesting.

    • Mark

      Until she lied to the desk clerk at the apartment building that he was her lover, an improper thought never entered my mind. Some people always just want to find something to get all upset about. Makes them feel important I suppose.

  • ChrisV

    I’ll play devil’s advocate. I HATED this film when I saw it in the theaters. HATED IT. I thought Portman’s tears after her family was murdered were beyond fake, and the hitman’s reaction of trying to cheer her up with a stuffed animal was just absurd. I agree with the comments from the writers here; the way people turned their heads and ignored the violence going on around them really struck me as non-realistic.

    All that said… I’ve heard from people over the years that the un-cut version is much, much better, and strengthens the relationship between the two. But when I saw it… it didn’t work for me.

  • S.O.

    One of the many great movies that made 1994 a year to remember in film.

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